Sunday School: The Formation of an American Institution

By Anne M. Boylan
New Haven : Yale University (1990). 225 Pages.

Reviewed by
2.2 (Fall 1991) : 200-201

The author, Associate Professor of History at the University of Delaware, has revised her dissertation for publication. The present volume offers a perspective of Sunday School heretofore unresearched. While professedly not a history, "it examines the creation and evolution of Sunday schools in five evangelical Protestant denominations . . . and through the inter-denominational Sunday School Union" (p. 1).

Although its true origins remain uncertain, Sunday School impacted the social climate of nineteenth-century United States. In this respect the Sunday School takes its place as a social reformer alongside "houses of refuge, reform schools, orphanages, old age homes and modern hospitals" (p. 2) The book does not ignore the spiritual impact of the Sunday School, but it focuses on the social dimension.

Interestingly, the state`in some cases by its own choosing, in others by pressure from individuals and groups of private citizens`" assumed the functions of many institutions only after decades of management by private volunteers" (p. 2). But unlike many other institutions, the Sunday School remained a voluntary and independent organization, mostly because of its affiliation with the evangelical church, which the author defines broadly as Baptists, Congregationalists, Low Church Episcopalians, Methodists, and Presbyterians (p. 1).

Boylan's work has much information about the British and American Societies as well as the social force of the American Sunday School as an aggressive and sometimes independent agency. For instance, "If the central symbols of British efforts to bring their brand of enlightenment and civilization to the world were the army officer and the bureaucrat, American 'civilizers' were more likely to be missionaries bearing Bibles and Sunday School books" (p. 169).

The book is a fascinating piece of research. Those interested in history, particularly American, and to a lesser extent, British, will find that the present volume fills gaps in one small area: the contribution that the evangelical Sunday School, broadly defined, has made to the social and intellectual growth of the United States. Evangelicals will be encouraged to discover how their spiritual forefathers impacted their society broadly while maintaining their evangelistic fervor. The book is highly recommended for those whose motivation will sustain their reading through a revised dissertation.